I’m glued to Naomi Mitchison’s wartime diaries, in a volume called “Among You Taking Notes…” I’d read her Memoirs of a Spacewoman and Travelling Light but until the amazing feminist scholar and reader Lesley Hall mentioned Mitchison’s non-fiction and diaries, I had no idea she was a renowned autobiographer.
To me her wartime diaries read like a blog. I get that same sense of intimacy, of the fullness of someone else’s life, without much exposition. I have to work to fill in gaps and figure out who’s who. (There is a handy glossary, and the book was edited well, with footnotes interspersed.) Apparently Mitchison was part of a project called Mass-Observation, which among other things got people to keep diaries during times of social change and war. I’m very curious about this project. She refers to it sometimes as “like therapy” so I wonder what her participation was other than to write the diary and mail it off to the Mass-Obs. people? There is mention that her diaries and letters were intercepted by the Home Office as a matter of course, read, copied by hand, and pertinent facts noted. “Shall remember that anything I say may be noted. I may be able to do a certain amount that way.” To note things on purpose that local people might need in hopes that politicians might help.
She’s in her early 40s… has 4 children off at school, a houseful of evacuees and refugees, in fact responsibility on some level for a townful of them, hundreds… writing… domestic and farming arrangements… poaching fish with the poachers for fun… and she lost her newborn baby, a heart defect, very sad. Her feelings about this recorded as faithfully as any mommyblogger’s. Occasional writerly crisis and freakout over the war, like this one from 7 Aug 1941:
I do feel like hell; it is partly being tired, partly that I feel so stupid; I can’t concentrate, I forget facts, I can’t read a serious book…. I make serious blunders about this war. I don’t know anything properly. If I’m no good I may as well do manual work and wear myself out, it doesn’t matter; I wish I knew if this was age or something physical or the beginning of some kind of mental decay or what. I so much want someone to be awfully nice to me for a long time. Oh someone that I love, stand up and crown me. And I get like screaming when all these girls talk at once. How can one write when one feels like that? I can remember now the things that Denny M. said to me yesterday about writing but what the hell; he is stupider than I am, it doesn’t matter what he says. It’s no fun being merely one-eyed in the country of the blind. Damn.
From someone so literate and hard-working and politically committed, a successful novelist, poet, and renowned intellectual, whose life was so full and who lived to be a hundred and one … It means a lot to me to see her low moments. It buoys me up not because of any schadenfreude at a successful person’s moments of pain, but because I know that these moments are inevitable and I shoudl not measure my own life by its low points. I admire Naomi Mitchison for her exposure of life’s messiness and complexity.
And that line, so beautiful, “Oh someone that I love, stand up and crown me.” Her diary entries are keenly perceptive of other women’s work, of women who are trying to have jobs or be writers or to survive and care for a family and whose work never ends, never has a stopping point or a congratulation, who “spend all their time caring for and petting others and who I would dearly love to pet as they are so in need of it.” Sometime during 1941 she noted that she would like to take everyone in turn in the village — a small herring-fishery village in west Scotland — and give them a day off in bed with tea and the nicest service. She agonizes over her own luxuries… I like her immensely.
Reading her diaries makes me think of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, of course Narnia, and other childrens’ books that are steeped in 30s and 40s England and the changing times. The ways that wartime and post-war books have a lustful focus on what the children have for tea struck me as odd when I was little, until I realized there was a butter and sugar ration. And the morals of children in E. Nesbit focus around nobly helping, social levelling, and gender equity – because she was a Fabian and a socialist, a feminist and believer in free love. Like Mitchison seems to have been.
I was struck by this quote from September 1939, the start of the war:
I think one sees things more vividly, storing them up, insisting on the moment, at these times. If one is wise. During the last war, when I was a girl, I felt all the time that it was wrong ever to be happy; now I think one should be when possible. It was the kind of day one could carry into the trench or a concentration camp, in one’s mind…. We took care not to shoot the pheasants; it seems odd, when men are shooting one another in Europe, and when we may be much more directly involved in that ourselves, yet I htink it is probably a good idea to be punctilious at the moment about small and silly rules which are not part of this totalitarian plan which is eating us now.
Elsewhere she brings up the possibility that most democratic or humanist rights and freedoms, most civil liberties, will disappear during wartime; that it is in enclaves like her village with its discussion groups and Labour meetings and plays that ideas of freedom will survive. They won’t be in textbooks; newspapers were censored and suppressed. Italian, Austrian, and german immigrants and refugees were being interned in England and shipped to Canada or Australia. One ship with I think 1500 internees was sunk by a German submarine, crossing the Atlantic, full of Italians… her friend’s doctor and his wife were on that ship… It’s a good reality check to compare Mitchison’s take on WWII to the wartime we are in.
Where are the memoirs and histories now, right now, of the Muslim people being detained illegally by our own government? I hope they are on blogs and I’ll be able to find them and read them.
Mitchison often wonders about being detained or exiled or put in a concentration camp herself especially if England were invaded. I certainly think about it too for myself – the tide could turn very suddenly in the U.S. to a paranoid and totalitarian dictatorship, as our President says in public that he is above the law. How wistfully I think of Al Gore and his stiff yet heartfelt statements about “The Rule of Law” the day after the election was decided with transparent unfairness.